After years of toil, sweat, hard work and a bagful of trophies, World No.1 doubles player and Indian tennis ace Sania Mirza has been conferred with the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna - the country's highest sporting honour on Saturday.
The award comes as a recognition for the Hyderabad-born athlete who is also the first Indian woman to achieve the number one rankings in doubles along with a host of victories in major tennis tournaments.
The Hyderabadi is arguably one of the best role models for young Indian women trying to make a mark in today's highly competitive world of sport.
The recognition has not come easily to her. From the very beginning of her career questions were raised about her ability to be a world beater, dismissing her hard-earned achievements as flashes in the pan. Sania showed early promise with a string of pretty decent shows in singles but on the way up suffered injuries and indignities raising a big question mark and giving her detractors to target her.
Sania flown down from America to receive the award despite the US Open which gets underway on Monday. Paralympic medalist HN Girisha had challenged that award in the Karnataka High Court saying he should have been considered before her. The court, however, did not stay the ceremony and asked the government to respond to the notice issued.
Sania also drew flak for her marriage to Pakistan cricketer Shoaib Malik in 2010. Undeterred, she has proved the naysayers wrong many of whom also used religion to criticise her.
Born on November 15, 1986, Sania has done India proud in a sport in which the women from the country were not counted for much. Sania is the first Indian woman to win a Grand Slam title when she lifted the Australia Open Mixed Doubles with Mahesh Bhupathi (2009). She has also won the mixed doubles titles at, French Open (2012) and US Open (2014). She is currently the world's No.1 ranked doubles player along with her partner, Hingis.
The 28-year-old has won a number of tournaments this year but her most notable achievement was winning the women's doubles title with Swiss veteran Martina Hingis at Wimbledon in July.
The Hyderabadi received the Arjuna award in 2004 while two years later she was awarded India's fourth highest civilian honour -- Padma Shri.
Sania’s rise was so quick and amazing that even she can’t believe she is No.1, not long ago she was trailing Italians Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci at the top of the ranking table by some two and half thousand points.
Sania is the third Indian to attain the No.1 ranking in doubles following her illustrious compatriots Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhuapthi, who ruled the men’s doubles circuit in the 90s. Leander, in his 40s, is still counting his Grand Slam doubles and mixed doubles titles.
Sania’s progress report is as impressive, her four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles underscoring her achievements.
To put her fantastic run in perspective, it has to be viewed taking her performance graph last year. She ended the year winning the year-end WTA finals with the experienced Zimbabwean Cara Black.
She has also shown how much does she care for the country’s tennis by leaving the pro circuit to play in the Incheon Asian Games. She won the mixed doubles gold with Saketh Maineni and also the first ever women’s doubles medal, the bronze with Prarthana Thombare. She had been a regular in every Indian team right from the time she played at the Busan Asian Games in 2002 as a 15-year-old.
Like Paes, Saina is also skillful enough to adapt her play with any partner as she has shone in mixed doubles.
Sania wanted to make name as singles player and she was on the right path, reaching a career-high 27th rank, battling it out with the established order. She looked good to be among the top ten on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) charts.
However, wrist and knee injuries halted her march and she had to finally settle for doubles play so as not to punish her body. The decision was proved right and she built her career all over again.